(TNS) -- A new graffiti crackdown in San Diego includes doubling the staff assigned to cover up the scrawls, centralizing eradication efforts and giving people more ways to report graffiti, including a popular phone app.
The city is also streamlining eradication efforts by equipping graffiti crews with tablet computers and hiring bilingual dispatchers to boost the accuracy of graffiti reports from Spanish-speaking residents.
"There's a whole bunch of good stuff going on," said Kristy Reeser, who oversees the program as deputy director of the city’s Streets Division.
The city is also continuing its Spray and Pay program, where people can get rewards up to $500 for reporting graffiti, and its role in Graffiti Tracker, a regional program aiming to match scrawls from different cities to boost fines and restitution from convicted taggers.
"When you catch somebody for tagging one location, you can tie them to everything they've done that's been reported through graffiti tracker," Reeser said.
Covering up scrawls quickly is crucial because the presence of graffiti often leads to more crime by generating the perception of blight.
A U.S. Justice Department study found that graffiti can also discourage people from using mass transit, make business districts less attractive to shoppers, lower property values and increase fear of gangs among residents.
"We haven't done any studies here, but we believe that to be true," said Reeser, adding that the presence of graffiti can lead to more graffiti. "The quicker you take care of it, the less prevalent it becomes."
The changes began two years ago when the city centralized its disorganized and inefficient graffiti efforts into the Streets Division of the Transportation and Stormwater Department.
Previously, that division handled only graffiti on public property, while city code enforcement officers handled graffiti on residential and commercial properties because it’s a code violation not to cover up scrawls quickly.
Centralizing the operations also allowed the city to use one hotline for graffiti — (619) 527-7500 — instead of having three different numbers people had to call based on the location of the graffiti.
And now callers always get a live person, instead of the old system where they often left a voice mail that sometimes omitted crucial details.
"Now you've got a real person to talk to, ask questions and clarify the location," Reeser said.
The centralization was recommended by City Auditor Eduardo Luna in a 2014 analysis of the city’s graffiti program.
Since then, the city has also added bilingual dispatchers to boost eradication efforts in southeastern San Diego where many graffiti reports come from Spanish-speaking residents.
"This makes it easier and quicker for us to take care of it," Reeser said.
Staffing had been another major concern, with the number of employees devoted to graffiti eradication sharply reduced when city revenues plummeted during the Great Recession.
During the current fiscal year, which ends this week, the city doubled the number of full-time employees devoted to graffiti efforts from five to 10. That required the purchase of a $190,000 industrial truck for the additional personnel.
The city has also begun equipping the employees with computer tablets, which replace an archaic and inefficient paper system, Reeser said.
"So they are able to see a picture of where that graffiti is if the public submits one," said Reeser. "They aren't blind any more — they can see the person is talking about the fence behind the house, not in front."
The tablets have also boosted the productivity of graffiti workers supplied to the city by the Urban Corps, which helps low-income young people get job training and perform community service.
Reeser said the easier-to-use computer tablets allow the city to send more scrawls to the Urban Corps workers and confirm that the scrawls were covered up.
The changes are getting results.
According to the mayor’s budget, it took the city an average of 12 days to paint over graffiti scrawls in fiscal 2016, but only an average of six days so far in fiscal 2017, which ends this week.
While such results might normally come with a reduction in the number of reports of graffiti, just the opposite is the case thanks to the city’s Get it Done! phone app.
Since the app began operating one year ago, the city has received more than 15,000 reports of graffiti, nearly double the roughly 8,000 reports received in the year before the app.
Reeser said it’s clear that graffiti incidents haven’t doubled in one year, but that providing people a more convenient way to report graffiti has made a big difference.
And allowing people to take a picture of the scrawl and its location makes it much easier for crews to efficiently find and cover the scrawls.
Nathan Patterson, a program manager for the Streets Division, said using the app has been a learning process that’s yielded steady improvement.
"We're starting to hit our stride a little bit on the reporting and abating process," he said.
Meanwhile, the city continues to administer the rewards program and seek restitution from taggers, which has been a less successful program recently.
The city averaged 66 defendants and $19,500 in restitution per year during 2011, 2012 and 2013, but that went down to 45 defendants and $4,900 in restitution per year in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
Those amounts don’t include $200 each tagger must contribute to the Spray and Pay rewards fund.
©2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.